Bumps on the road to Helsinki: Will we ever get there?

Eleven months before the 2015 NPT Review Conference is convened, there is still no sign that the Helsinki conference on the establishment of the WMD-free zone in the Middle East will be held. In what seemed to be a glimmer of hope in Geneva on May 14-15, the conference’s facilitator, co-conveners and future state parties to the zone met to discuss the conference’s modalities.

Unfortunately, the discussion ended with the seemingly perpetual “Three No’s” stalemate: No consensus, No date, and No conference. Many observers fear that if the obstacles are found unassailable and the Helsinki process fails to get off the ground, the result could be detrimental not only to regional security, but also to the health of the global non-proliferation regime. Heeding these austere developments, the following commentary aims to dissect the salient obstacles, underlying complexities and seeming contradictions that contribute to the impasse in the Helsinki process, with the objective of laying a foundation for forthcoming recommendations about possible ways forward.

Israel’s purported dilemma: To conference or not to conference?

Aside from Israel’s nuclear monopoly, which presents one of the main technical obstacles toward the establishment of the WMD-free zone in the Middle East, Tel Aviv has also presented the strongest objections to an early convening of the Helsinki conference and would have been the only country in the region to abstain from attending the conference, had it been convened. Though Israel has readily engaged in the Glion-Geneva discussions (a series of four meetings to discuss the modalities of the Helsinki conference), it remains to be seen whether it is genuinely interested in the success of the process or if instead it wants to perpetuate the illusion of progress without intending to engage constructively and carry the process to fruition.

Take the comprehensive peace argument as an example. One of the reasons why Israel objected to participate at the now-postponed Helsinki conference, or to even support the establishment of a WMD-Free Zone in the Middle East was the lack of comprehensive peace in the region. Yet Israel’s disposition toward the achievement of peace seems rather conditional upon it being settled on its own terms, and it’s often dismissive of constructive propositions, such as the Arab Peace Initiative (API) of 2002. The proposal, by then Crown Prince King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, offered Israel full normalization of relations with all 57 Islamic countries (including all 22 Arab states and Iran), in exchange for full Israeli withdrawal to the pre-1967 borders. In response, the Israeli government reacted negatively to the initiative, (though the API has gained some traction in recent negotiations) while endorsing an aggressive and unabated policy of settlement expansion into the West Bank. The settlement enterprise has been repeatedly deemed “unhelpful” to the peace process, and the policy has been described as a deliberate attempt to negotiate over sharing a pizza while one of the parties continues to eat it. Clearly, though the question of whether some in Israel may not truly want a comprehensive peace cannot be answered in one paragraph, the state’s publicized disposition seems in relative dissonance with its construed policies.[1]

Equally problematic is Israel’s “non-member, non-binding” rationalization for not attending the Helsinki conference. In 2010, Prime Minister Netanyahu hinted that Israel is not bound nor subject to endorse the 2010 NPT Review Conference mandate to hold a conference in 2012 because it is a state non-party to the NPT. Though this reference is technically true, Israel’s UN membership and repeated support for the establishment of the Middle East WMD-free zone at the UN level, might lead one to think that genuine intentions to achieve the zone would not discriminate based on which international platform calls for zone-related discussions. What difference does it make if the Helsinki conference was convened within an NPT or a UN umbrella? Is the conference’s purpose not to jump-start discussions toward the establishment of a zone – an idea that Israel has agreed to at the UN? For an Israeli official, the answers to these questions are not obvious. There is a legitimate fear of being drawn into a mechanism such as the NPT, which Israel has not previously sanctioned (though one that it fervently uses against Iran). However, it may also be the case that Israel’s “categorical” support for the zone might not necessarily equate to a future attendance to the Helsinki conference altogether, much in the same way that the country’s explicit backing of the NPT (also expressed at the UN in June 12, 1968)[2] did not lead to its subsequent signing and ratification of the treaty. Israel’s declaratory policy toward the zone – one of support and political will – might simply be an artifice of a well-played political charade.[3] If such is the case, Israel is not the only country at fault.

Arab states and Iran: compromising or seeking leverage?

Israel offered yet another objection for not attending the Helsinki conference – it remains apprehensive towards participating at a conference where its nuclear monopoly would likely be singled out and other regional security concerns, unaddressed.[4] This might be the strongest and most validated obstacle the Helsinki process has faced yet. Arab states and Iran have been adamant in keeping the Helsinki conference’s agenda from covering issues such as conventional weapons, which they see as distractions from the issue at hand: outlawing WMDs in the region. In a way, this position does seem to aim at ostracizing one country’s nuclear program alone, possibly at the expense of making progress towards the establishment of the zone itself.

Take Egypt’s non-accession, non-ratification policy toward WMD-related conventions as an example. Egypt has repeatedly argued that it makes its signing and ratification of any further conventions conditional on Israel’s NPT accession. Though this position might be intended to generate some leverage on the Israelis, it is clear that it has not translated into meaningful steps towards the zone’s establishment, but rather seems to be stalling the process. Making any steps towards the achievement of the zone conditional on the nuclear disarmament of a single state, rather than engaging in multilateral confidence-building measures that might ultimately contribute to the final goal, might be undermining the very idea of the establishment of a zone free of weapons of mass destruction (and not just one free of nuclear weapons alone). CBMs such as discussing regional security concerns and signing and ratifying the Chemical Weapons Convention – alongside Israel and not as unilateral concessions – could boost the parties’ confidence in the process and smooth out the incidence of mistrust in the region.


Egypt might argue against these suggestions by rightly citing the failure of the ACRS process [5] – arguably the only regional security forum that brought Israel and Arab states to the discussion table – to deliver on Israel’s nuclear disarmament. Egypt might also argue that its own NPT accession in 1981 is as strong a confidence-building measure as Israel could possibly ask for. Yet these legitimate rebuttals do not contribute to a compromising atmosphere, but rather to one plagued by deadlock. Though Arab states and Iran have not made attending Helsinki conditional on Israel’s NPT signing, it may be that they see the Helsinki process as a platform for demanding outright Israel’s immediate accession to the treaty. Such demand is and must continue to be one of the main goals of the process, but having no conference might entail as negative repercussions as having a failed one, where parties are besieged over differences on the sequencing of Israel’s nuclear disarmament, in the absence of other CBMs or further regional security discussions. It remains unclear however, whether the Arab states and Iran are willing to endorse a more constructive position, and compromise on an agenda that suits their immediate concerns but also Israeli ones.

What about the conference’s co-conveners – are their positions conducive enough to the success of the Helsinki process?

Judging by their delivered statements during Cluster II “specific issue” discussions at the NPT Preparatory Committee earlier this month, the U.S. and the U.K. seemed quiescently apologetic for the lack of progress, while Russia kept referencing its commitment to the conference. The U.S. specifically mentioned “regional challenges to the integrity and authority of the NPT,” which included – among others – Iran’s nuclear program and Syria’s alleged non-compliance with the IAEA, raising concerns about possible covert military developments. These challenges continue to undermine global efforts to establish the Middle East WMD-free zone, the statement concluded, while emphasizing U.S. commitment to the convening of a conference that is “freely arrived at by the states of the region.” The U.S. also encouraged Israel and its Arab counterparts to “continue the positive tones” to convene the Helsinki conference, but failed to outline concrete U.S. actions to facilitate the process. The Russian statement (transcript unavailable) scolded the U.S. reference to Iran and Syria as “challenges” and instead directed the blame towards the only state in the region with a nuclear monopoly and known reservations against attending the conference – Israel. The U.K. in turn, spoke on behalf of all 3 conveners, reaffirming their support towards the Helsinki process, but later added in its national capacity: “We also note in this context that one of the states of the region [Israel] is not a state party to the NPT and is therefore not bound by the 2010 Action Plan, but that their inclusion in a Conference is key to its success.”

The conveners’ addresses (particularly the ones from the U.S. and the U.K.) might have unearthed a possible lack of belief that the Helsinki conference can be successfully convened before 2015. Statements such as a conference “freely arrived at by the states of the region” and Israel is “not bound by the 2010 Action Plan,” seem to be fatalistic about the limited progress achieved through the Glion-Geneva meetings, handing to Israel an effective veto that excuses all from their commitments to convene the meeting. This approach is dangerous, not least because these states agreed to “exert their utmost efforts with a view to ensuring the early establishment by regional parties of a Middle East [WMD-free] zone” as part of a grand bargain around the NPT’s indefinite extension.


The Helsinki process is unfortunately plagued by several stumbling blocks posed by key future state parties to a WMD-free zone in the Middle East, and a seeming lack of belief in the success of the process from the co-conveners. Finnish facilitator, Ambassador Jaakko Laajava, stated in his address to the NPT Preparatory Committee that “we need less positioning and more willingness to see progress on the ground” if the objective is to carry the process forward, but the current status quo forebodes further deadlock. Unless parties engage in a genuine attempt toward a more constructive approach, we might continue to witness a dance around the Three No’s stalemate.

This blog entry is the second in a series by Scoville Fellow Lianet Vazquez on a Middle East free of nuclear weapons and other weapons of mass destruction. The first entry offers a brief historical background about the idea to establish a zone free of WMDs in the Middle East, and a recap on related discussions at the NPT Preparatory Committee meetings earlier this month.

-The views expressed belong to those of the author.



1. Consider further the example of Eliezer Livneh, and his change in allegiance from supporting the anti-nuclear cause to favoring Israel’s territorial expansion. Livneh was one of the founders of the Israeli Committee for Denuclearization of the Middle East back in 1962; a lobbying group that advocated for a Middle East free of nuclear weapons. Following the 1967 war, however, Livneh’s anti-nuclear movement faded, instead giving rise to the Movement for Greater Israel, which he later founded (for more information, refer to: Avner Cohen. Israel and the Bomb. New York: 1998. pg. 290). The latter movement supports Israel’s territorial expansion into the areas of Judea and Samaria – Biblical names for the West Bank – an idea that is exemplified in Israel’s policy to continue settlement expansion into the Palestinian territory, but which seems contradictory to Israel’s alleged desire of a comprehensive peace in the region.

2. In June 12, 1968, the UN General Assembly passed resolution 2373 calling upon states to sign and ratify the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. Israel voted in favor of this resolution, even though it had already obtained a nuclear weapons capability.

3. Israel’s nuclear track record further reveals discrepancies between the country’s declaratory policy and its subsequent actions. This behavior is not unique to Israel’s nuclear program, but it does exemplify how a state’s public statements might not be representative of hidden political agendas. For instance, Israel was compelled to sign an agreement with the French at the Sevres conference on October 22 – 24, 1956 proclaiming that French – Israeli cooperation was destined for scientific research rather than a nuclear program with military aims. Israel’s heavy water purchase from Norway’s NORATOM agency followed in 1957, under the understanding that the heavy water would “be employed solely for the promotion and development of the peaceful use of atomic energy and not for any military purpose.” The result of the Sevres conference and the heavy water purchase however, was the subsequent collaboration to build the Dimona nuclear reactor, which Israel then used to achieve breakout capacity and build its nuclear arsenal. For more information, refer to Avner Cohen’s chapter “The Road to Dimona” in his book Israel and the Bomb.

4. For more information, refer to: article by Dina Esfandiary on the WMD-free zone, and news reporting on the subject.

5. ACRS stands for Arms Control and Regional Security. It was a forum established as part of the Madrid peace process in 1991, where 13 Arab states (including Egypt), Palestinian representatives, and Israel discussed confidence-building and arms-control measures. The forum or working group stopped convening in 1995 amid the backdrop of difficulties in the peace process and the Arab perception that Israel was taking advantage of the platform to divert attention from nuclear disarmament. For more information, refer to NTI’s article.


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